A FEW REMARKS ON ETHIOPIAN GOVERNMENT’S NEW HISTORY MODULE

BY HAILE M. LAREBO, BD, STL, PhD

HAILE M. LAREBO, BD, STL, PhD

The Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education has recently published history teaching material for students of higher learning institutions, entitled “Module For History of Ethiopia And The Horn For HLIS [Higher Learning Institutions Students, hereinafter “the Module”]”. The writers of the Module are four academicians: Drs. Surafel Gelgelo, from Addis Ababa University, Deressa Debu of Jimma University, Dereje Hinew of Wallaga University, and Mr. Meseret Worku, from DabreTabor University. These are undeniably men (unfortunately there is no woman), with considerable academic credentials. Three of them are honored with terminal degrees in the field of history, and the two (Surafel and Deressa ) have monographs apparently by the same publisher, VDM Verlag Dr. Muller, which is known for publishing “works that received a passing grade”, and is described as “a predatory vanity press” which, contrary to its claim of being an academic publisher,  does “not apply the basic standards of academic publishing”.

The Module is divided into seven units, and an introductory chapter. The first discusses the nitty-gritty of history, including its meaning and use, sources and methods, and its geographical context. The second deals with the peopling of the region and cultural evolution. The following three units are dedicated to polities, economy, and socio-cultural processes in the successive centuries: from the early period to the end of the 13th centuries is dealt in unit three, and those up to 16th century are addressed by unit four, whereas unit five discusses those from the early 16th to the end of the 18th century. The last two units, namely six and seven, deal with internal and external social and political dynamics and the forces at play, the first, from1800-1941, and the second, up to 1994.

The present paper has only a very limited objective: that of making a few remarks that I consider useful, highlighting mainly the most questionable aspects of the Module. As we all know, History is too important a subject to be ignored. It is a recorded memory of a society, and any society to function effectively, needs to know about its past. History is important not only to understand the society in which we presently live, and the processes by which it came about, but also to make informed judgements about the policies and personalities of those presently in power.

It is a good idea that before embarking on the topic I should highlight a few basic things when talking about history. History can be broadly defined as the study of the human past. Traditionally, very distant part, the period before the birth of the first human civilizations and the invention of writing, the period over 5,000 years ago, is the domain of Anthropology, whereas the very recent past, namely the events within the past five years or so, are the terrain of the Political Science and Sociology. What makes history different from other humanities and social sciences, History deals with hard facts. If there are no facts, there is no history. History, while sharing a common ancestry with epic poetry, novel, legend and mythology, it is different from them because its subject is based on documentary evidence in the form of writing, art or building work. In the past, both the subjects and the methods of ascertaining them were quite narrow, but in the twentieth century, they have expanded tremendously. Accordingly, mdern historians through DNA testing have discredited Anna Anderson’s claim that she was the grand duchess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, and with the use of carbon-14-dating technique were able to establish the age of the Shroud of Turin and discount the long-standing association of the fabric with Jesus’s burial cloth.

Yet History involves judgment, and because of the element of judgment that is why History is not a science, namely an academic discipline with an authoritative, unbiased statement of what really happened, THE TRUTH. Yet that does not mean the hard facts narrated in history never happened or existed.

To establish the falsehood of this statement, we have to make two important but very distinctive elements: “past facts”, or “human past” are the people and society who lived and the events that occurred during the times under study; “history” itself is our attempt to study, namely to investigate, explain, interpret and understand these past facts. “Past facts” are eternal truths, which are fixed, unchangeable, and beyond the control of every succeeding generation. By contrast, History changes continuously from generation to generation, from individual to individual, and according to the time and place, as the values and understandings of the “past facts” change due to improved analysis, or discovery of new facts etc… Italy’s defeat at  the Battle of Adwa in March 1896, for example, is a past [historical] fact, and both the fact and the date of the event are unquestionable certainties, and any contrary argument to them can be nothing but completely false as it runs against a simple hard fact.  Yet how the victory happened, why it happened, who played a major role, is a matter of debate, and the truth depends on the discovery of new documents or improved analysis of the existing ones.  These are the basic facts that we should bear in mind when discussing the Module.

The Module aims to achieve identical assets that most western institutions of higher learning intend to equip their freshmen and sophomores through their required core curricula courses, which stress, among other things, the attainment of the following specific objectives as their goal:

  • Ensure that student possesses fundamental intellectual skills among which the most significant include critical thinking and writing;
  • Broaden student’s perspective beyond that afforded by his/her major or minor, instilling in him/her sense of appreciation of the inter-relatedness of knowledge;
  • Facilitate student’s search for identity and meaning, emphasizing his/her national heritage, and his/her connectedness to the broader world;
  • Foster ethical behavior, civic engagement and leadership in his community, nation-state and beyond.

In the pursuit of this consciousness raising and self-empowering effort, it can be quite confidently stated that no other subject is as crucial as history. The writers of the Module seem to be aware of this fact, as they state that its purpose “is to help students understand a history of Ethiopia and the Horn from the ancient to 1994 as a base for shaping and bettering of the future”.

For history to attain this high objective, it should be understood and taught in all its complexities, both the pleasant and unpleasant, the heroic and the disastrous. Failure to adhere to this basic rule will result in bad history. We know that as there is good history, equally there is also bad history. Only good history will serve as a good guide to illuminate and shape students’ lives and problems. Good history takes into account as much evidence as it can and makes the most reasoned judgment as it can.  The Ministry’s Module badly fails to meet this challenge. It can be confidently stated that it is the worst kind of history filtered to serve the needs of the regime in power, written by selecting only those facts that “prove” its perspective, or just to make its constituents feel good.

In fact, no academic discipline in Ethiopia had become a subject of so much ridicule, controversy, contention and propaganda as does the country’s history. Each regime that followed the monarchical rule has used and abused it for its political agenda, blaming it for the depth and extent of the country’s social malaise, justifying its cruel and rapacious rule, and to engineer a new society in its own image. Both the Derg and the EPRDF regimes have practically transformed the country’s population into a human guinea-pig for their contemptible ideological laboratory. Their experiments miserably failed, but they left a complete mayhem behind.

Derg believed that the backwardness of Ethiopia was due to its exploitative social structure, where a handful of feudal lords in cohort with their twin bedfellows, the Church and the monarchy, abused the masses for millennia, exploiting their land and labor. However, Derg’s attempt to build a socialist El Dorado through an exported foreign doctrine, Marxism-Leninism, was nothing but an extreme disappointment. The Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF], which ousted Derg, fared no better. Primarily because as a hodge-podge of individuals and groups, handpicked by the victorious Tegrean nationalist liberation front [TPLF], a guerilla band, assumingly fostered and groomed by the Eritrean Liberation Front, has no national vision of any sort beyond hatred and blatant discriminatory rule, perhaps quite unheard and unseen in Ethiopia’s millennial history. TPLF attributed Ethiopia’s backwardness to the trinity of [USA] imperialism, monarchical feudalism and, what it described as, the Amhara overlord-ism, namely economic exploitation and political oppression. With its surrogate, EPRDF, TPLF vowed to fight tooth and nail, these evil trio. Accordingly, a constitution was drafted, followed by an administrative system that created ethnic enclaves, which apparently seemed to be useful instrument for the government’s agenda:  to eliminate, hunt down, and drive back, the oppressive Amhara to their putative homeland. Yet TPLF’s saga ended with the Front itself being unceremoniously driven back by a sustained popular protest to the land of its origin.

What is amazing and extraordinary in all these developments is not only the fact of these regimes’ fanatical adherence to their elusive and ill-begotten mythology, but also their inability to learn from their predecessors’ historical mistakes.  Beyond pontificating to be all-knowing, the regimes demonstrated their utter ignorance of Ethiopian history and social milieu. Whatever history they claimed they knew, happened to be a figment of their imagination, not reality.

This is the context in which the Ministry of Science and Higher Education module is written. It is apparently part of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister, Doctor Abiy Ahmed’s grand vision of future Ethiopia. Abiy seems to have a good intention of bringing Ethiopia to its past historical height. As many understand, in the imagination of many nations in Asia, Europe and Africa, Ethiopia’s image is that of a shining black nation that served as a torch of freedom, a model of peaceful co-existence of disparate religions and languages, a country of proud ancient civilization. However, the vast chasm exists between Abiy’s speech and practice, and the Module typifies this abnormality. It is my conviction that the Module’s underlying interest is nothing else but the perpetuation, and therefore legitimization of, the usual false narrative by the new governing elite in the new dressing.

The major shortcoming of the Module lies in the very government’s attempt to dictate what the higher education institutions should teach. Institutions of higher learning are communities of scholars and students, assembled with a mission to preserve, interpret, cultivate, advance and disseminate knowledge for its own sake rather than for any immediate political, social, or economic goal. It is these institutions, and not the government, who own the curriculum, with the power to develop, amend, change, or dispose of. By writing down, or stipulating, what course and how the higher learning institutions should teach, the government is clearly infringing on the very basic and sacred rights of these institutions.

The government’s intention to unashamedly dictate its lopsided interpretation of Ethiopian history as perceived by the new ruling elite was apparently came to the fore a few months before the publication of the Module. A secret memo written to the Prime Minister Abiy by his top legal advisor, encapsulates the new perspective. This is what the advisor states about Ethiopian history.

“What we refer to, and used as, Ethiopian history to-date, is nothing but [an epic] that commemorates the hagiography of some nations. It is an isolationist history, which does not even mention the history of most Ethiopian nationalities, but particularly the history of the Oromo. (Highlight is mine).

The advisor has definitely no understanding of the evolution of historical writing in the world, in general, and Ethiopia, in particular.  It is an established fact that for several thousand years and until the end of the 18th century, written history was the political history of the upper classes, by the upper classes, and for the upper classes, which are made up of small ruling elite (stories of kings, their governments and wars), and their immediate servants, the clergy and the clerks. As the focus of history is on change, it is quite wrongly believed that this group alone was responsible for any changes in human sphere. It alone was in position to shape the course of history through its policies, leadership, personality or creativity. So, until a few decades  back, the lower classes, that is the vast majority of the human population, made only sporadic appearances on the stage of history as starving masses, or the suffering masses, or the rebellious masses, or served as tourist attractions, or crowd scene to highlight the visibility and presence of a high class officials in their midst. As we know it, the writing of local and ethnic history is a very recent phenomena everywhere, including the west, and Ethiopia is no exception to this general global trend. Yet contrary to the advisor’s statement, no ethnic group in Ethiopia has been the subject of so much historical interest as the Oromo ethnic groups were. Not only that. Some of the most prominent Ethiopian history writers themselves since the early days of their expansion, such as Dajach TakleSellassie, known as Tinno, and Abba TaklaIyesus Wakjira, just to mention a few, were scholars with Oromo background. 

The Module’s close reading suggests that as the TPLF regime was intoxicated with the hatred of the Amhara, the present ruling elites appear quite inebriated with what they claim Oromo’s uniquely distinctive culture, particularly as manifested in the Gada system, and other related institutions, such as Gudifecha and Mogasa. Overwhelmed by the “Gada euphoria”, the authors of the Module seem to have ignored the basic tenets of historical methodology, confusing myth with facts, lies with truths, opinions with certainties, and making judgements, that are lopsided, unashamedly biased, and mystifyingly false. They write profusely about the Oromo, ignoring, or simply making passing remarks on, other nationalities. According to them, the Oromos are the largest ethnic groups not only in Ethiopia, but in Africa as well (a statement lately echoed by the Prime Minister Abiy himself). Yet they provide no tangible evidence to back up their position beyond making such general public pronouncements.

 

A few centuries back, a European visitor wrote that,

“the Galla neither till, nor sow, nor gather anything the land produces… the spacious vales and rich plains they are masters of, only serve to pasture their cattle… They look after thy flocks, drink their milk, and eat thy flesh, which is all their food, without any bread …. They occupy the land if find any bread they do not mislike, but eat it, with a very good appetite, and yet not sow.”

However, the authors of the Module do not seem to share this view. According to them, the Oromos had already possessed quite sophisticated astrological know-how that enabled them to establish the oldest calendar in the planet, which went back to 9000 years (p. 63).

For many Ethiopian and foreign scholars, Gada is an ossified primordial and atavistic political institution, historically notorious for both its genocides that wiped out several ethnic groups from their homelands, and militaristic conquests that turned prosperous cities into deserts. Merid WoldeAregay, a leading scholar on the Oromo migration, in his magisterial thesis, Southern Ethiopia and the Christian Kingdom, 1508-1708 with Special Reference to the Galla Migration and their Consequences, 1971), states that “each new luba inaugurated its eighth year term by launching offensives for new conquests… Those who suffered most were the Muslim towns and cities (p. 334); “The Galla fell on every town and village and destroyed over 100 towns (p. 348)”.

As regards the much celebrated Mogasa, Merid has this to say:

“the Galla maintained the distinction between themselves and the subjugated peoples by adopting the social system that fitted their needs, they made sure that the strangers were kept out of the age-sets….”

In the eyes of “the peasants, the Gallas were not mere intruders, but aliens and enemies, who had caused much damage and upset their sedentary way of life (p. 417)”.

The writers, however, present a rosy picture of the democratic Oromo movement. They are completely silent about the wholesale devastation of cities, massacre of populations, and destruction of civilizations. They do not, however, extend such kindness to others.

A careful reader of the Module will notice that Ethiopian history is portrayed as a continuous and sustained struggle between power-hungry northerners (whom they call with so many confusing terms, The Abyssinians, or the Christian Kingdom, or the Ethiopian Empire, just to mention a few)  who are bent in dominating others and peace-loving Muslim sultanates, or the Oromos in the medieval ages;  and again, between colonialist Shawans and their northern Christian allies, as represented by Emperor Menilek and his Oromo collaborators, who conquered  inherently democratic and peace-loving Oromos and other minority ethnic groups. Thus, Menilek’s unification effort is presented as brutal colonial conquest, which in some extreme instances, as in Arsi’s case, involved the use of biological warfare, accompanied by breast mutilation and limb amputation and castration (p. 136).  Yet they have offered no shred of evidence in support beyond their audacious claim.

Beyond their attack of the ‘Abyssinian Empire’, the writers reserve the vengeance of their deleterious pen to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They assert that the Church followed the footsteps of the conquering northern ‘Christian kingdom’. The conquered people were converted by force, and with the monopolization of burial places by the Church, total surrender became their fate (39).

The Module ends with a perfunctory review just in a single paragraph the EPRDF’s coming to, and consolidation of, power, including its over twenty-seven years’ rule. Reflecting the government’s propaganda, the authors describe the notorious ethnic enclaves that the TPLF invented  as based “on identity, language, settlement patterns and peoples consent”, and the non-sensical federal arrangement of the language-based states as a wise creation intended  to “rectify past injustices and imbalances perpetuated by an unrepresentative state through the decentralization of power … by accommodating the country’s various ethno-linguistic groups.(highlight is mine)” (p.194).

Definitely, the conclusion is most fitting summary that clearly indicates the true character and significance of the Module: a government ploy to present to the young students as normal and as a true reflection of the people’s will a tottering and unjust political order.

With these few pointed observations, I halt my remarks. However, I feel obliged to stress an absolute lack of additional readings for students to further their knowledge and curiosity beyond those provided by the Module/textbook, the absurdity of monolithic assessment method (only essay questions are provided), a cumbersome cacophony of names and words that may do nothing good but crush to the ground the student in agony and destroy his enthusiasm for any effective learning; the enormity of grammatical inaccuracies, typographical oversights, syntactical errors, and poor choice of words.

As regards the use of a foreign language for instructional purposes, I would like to throw out a few words. One of the mechanisms the former western colonial powers continue to maintain their dominance on their former black African colonies is the use of their languages as the official means of communication. Luckily, Adwa has freed Ethiopians from such degradation and enslavement; yet our educational institutions continue to use European rather than our own language. This is definitely a humiliating slap on the face of Adwa and those who fought and sacrificed their lives for our uncompromising freedom and independence. Therefore, I find extremely hard to grasp the reason for choosing a foreign means of communication in a country that has a longstanding national language and proud literary tradition that predate most of those in the west. It is said that the statesmen, who are normally considered as being far-sighted, care about the next generations whereas politicians, often selfish, unintelligent and vainglorious, look only for their next election. Instead of dictating the curriculum to higher education institutions, the government should work out a realistic plan and rewarding mechanisms to liberate Ethiopia’s institutions from the yoke of foreign linguistic dominance. In doing so, any enlightened government would save thousands, if not millions, of our precious students who fail their exams, or are discouraged from furthering their education, because of language hardship.

Finally, unless there is some covert and ulterior motive, perhaps intended to appease certain quarters or a few self-serving and narrow ethno-nationalists, who find even the mere mention of the name Ethiopia hard to swallow,  the term “And The Horn” in the title of the Module, is quite misnomer, not to say superfluous, as there is no relevant discussion concerning other surrounding Horn states beyond a few uninteresting remarks.

From an honest historian’s perspective, the Module is nothing, but the regime’s hidden propaganda parading as an academic history course. From the start to finish, it is an embarrassing document, and any serious historian will be faced with no other option but to throw it out – lock, stock and barrel. The design and instruction of an academic course is the preserve of higher learning institutions. It is for them to take the responsibility to develop their students’ curriculum freely and responsibly, and for the government to keep far away from it.

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